Cancer research news

April 26, 2012

News from Robert W. Franz Cancer Research Center in the Earle A. Chiles Research Institute at Providence Cancer Center

Watching Providence Cancer Center become both an international player and a nationally recognized Community Cancer Center has been a joy for Walter Urba, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Robert W. Franz Cancer Research Center. “Putting our patients first means everything to us,” he says. 

In February, Dr. Urba traveled to Japan as an invited guest speaker at the annual Nagoya International Cancer Treatment Symposium sponsored by Bristol-Myers Squibb. He addressed more than 200 physicians and researchers from around the globe on the topic of cancer immunotherapy. The symposium seeks to accelerate research initiatives and enhance patient care strategies by providing a forum to exchange information and ideas on cancer chemotherapy among researchers and clinicians.                   

Bernie Fox, Ph.D., returned from a trip to Naples, Italy, in February that was part of his work with a recently launched global task force on a possible new approach to cancer classification. The task force is led by the Society for Immunotherapy of Cancer. In a study involving 5,000 colorectal cancer patients from the United States, Asia, Europe and Australia, it is hoped that data collected from this large cohort will solidify the theory that cancer development – and patients’ response to therapy – is “foretold” by immunological biomarkers. This research will help clinicians identify patients who are at greater risk of recurring cancers.

Fulbright Scholar and lab chief Emmanuel Akporiaye, Ph.D., is testing a synthesized form of vitamin E, called alpha-TEA, that is intended to help the immune system target and destroy cancer cells and potentially stop recurrence. Initial lab work focused on breast cancer, and now, with FDA approval to move forward, his team is preparing to treat 18 patients who have a variety of cancers in a clinical trial in early 2013. The FDA is requiring additional safety testing before we can treat patients. Approximately $500,000 in funding will help push alpha-TEA closer to patients. Dr. Akporiaye heads the Laboratory of Tumor Immunology and Therapeutics.

Medical oncologist Brendan Curti, M.D., is leading a prostate cancer clinical trial involving a vaccine called GVAX. Nine patients are currently in the study. Since his days as a researcher at the National Cancer Institute, Dr. Curti has collaborated with laboratory researchers to develop new trials for patients in his practice. He is also leading our current prostate cancer trial with anti-OX40, which was developed at Providence Cancer Center.

Hong-Ming Hu, Ph.D., and his colleagues have developed a vaccine that is particularly effective in training the immune system to recognize and eradicate advanced lung and breast cancers. Preliminary studies have been promising. The hope is that this vaccine, referred to as the DRibble Vaccine, could become an “off the shelf” product that will be effective in eradicating many different tumor types. More lab work is needed to identify specific biomarkers (proteins) on cancer cells that the immune system can recognize when the vaccine is administered.

In partnership with radiation oncologist Marka Crittenden, M.D., Ph.D., and Steven Seung, M.D., Ph.D., medical oncologist Brendan Curti, M.D., is continuing very successful work on a clinical study of patients with advanced (metastatic) melanoma. The second, current trial involves 44 patients. Using a combination of stereotactic body radiation therapy and immunotherapy interleukin-2, this clinical trial is designed to replicate the very promising results seen in the pilot trial. Dr. Crittenden is one of the few practitioners with an M.D. and Ph.D. who both care for patients and conduct research.

One of the tools Dr. Crittenden and others on the Providence Cancer Center team need for enhancing their important research is a small-animal radiation research platform. This instrument is used to support preclinical, intra- and inter-institutional research projects, and allows investigators to perform detailed studies on biological processes, disease progression and response to therapy. The M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust is considering a $335,000 grant that would fund half the cost of this technology. Providence Cancer Center donors are important partners in helping us secure the additional $335,000 for this much-needed equipment.

Principal investigator Michael Gough, Ph.D., is leading a gastrointestinal cancer study involving blood samples from patients with pancreatic, colorectal and liver cancers. Dr. Gough is partnering with Todd Crocenzi, M.D., Paul Hansen, M.D., and Mark Whiteford, M.D., in this study aimed at better understanding the environments of these tumors and why particular cells are subverted, which allows the cancer cells to grow.

Andy Weinberg, Ph.D., inventor of the current techniques using antibodies to OX40, has formed a company that is advancing this work more rapidly. He also continues to be deeply involved as chief of the Laboratory of Basic Immunology at Providence. His team is working on several patient trials with OX40, including one with radiation for prostate cancer patients and one on breast cancer that will soon be under way. A highlight of our more than 15 years of working on OX40 has been the creation of a partnership with a major pharmaceutical company in late 2011. This relationship, and the dollars the company will invest in OX40, will greatly accelerate the translation of OX40 ideas to new treatments for patients.

Medical oncologist Ali Conlin, M.D., is leading a team that wants to discern when breast-specific gamma imaging (BSGI screening) is more effective than MRI in detecting breast cancers. No studies have ever produced guidelines telling physicians when one technology is more effective than the other. As a result, physicians have no recommendations for best use when patients request the new BSGI technology they’ve heard about. This leads to “over-screening” of many women, increased health care costs, and increased testing that can cause unnecessary stress. Funding for this MRI vs. BSGI study would cover 100 women participants. Upon completion, Dr. Conlin plans to publish a national paper on the results to help in developing important standards of care.

Researchers Marka Crittenden, M.D., Ph.D., and Keith Bahjat, Ph.D., are developing a vaccine for the treatment of glioblastoma multiforme, a very lethal form of malignant brain tumor. Dr. Bahjat, in collaboration with former colleagues at Aduro BioTech, has developed a novel bacterial vector (Listeria) that can be modified to include a vaccine, and be used to vaccinate patients following standard treatment with surgery and radiation. This is one of our newest projects in which we are working toward a nine-patient clinical trial.

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